“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”.

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie’s film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin.

Although Napoleon’s mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple’s intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today’s generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton’s series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton’s score for the movie’s second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert’s editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s break-in of the Vinciguerras’s shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert’s editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me – in a negative way – of Paul Greengrass’ direction of the second and third “BOURNE” movies.

However, my main beef with “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” proved to be Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women’s fashion in 1963:

Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:

I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston’s designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie’s 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki’s costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie’s costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram’s plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series, “IT TAKES A THIEF”. The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic anduber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram’s script not only utilized a bit of “IT TAKES A THIEF”, but also some characters from the TV version of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s’ series called (1.05) “The Deadly Games Affair” in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler’s party. For “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi. As for the movie’s dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya – especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya’s personality – his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character’s talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn’s performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen “A ROYAL AFFAIR”. And I honestly do not recall her performance in “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya’s mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby’s intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.’s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in “THE GREAT GATSBY”, I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby’s Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009’s “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby’s snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.

Spoonbread

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Below is an article about the American dish known as Spoonbread:

 

SPOOONBREAD

The dish known as spoonbread is a cornmeal-based specialty that is prevalent in the American South. Although named a “bread”, the dish is closer in consistency and taste to many savory puddings, like Britain’s Yorkshire pudding. According to some recipes, spoonbread is similar to a cornmeal soufflé. However, most Southern recipes for this dish do not involve whipping the eggs to incorporate air.

The first published recipe for Spoonbread appeared in a book written by Sarah Rutledge in 1847. Another recipe appeared in the cookbook called “Practical Cook Book “, written by a Mrs. Bliss of Boston in 1850. She called the dish, “Indian puffs”. However, Spoonbread dates long before the Antebellum period. European colonists probably first learned about the dish from Native tribes along the Atlantic seaboard. The traditional South Carolina low country version of Spoonbread was called Awendaw (or Owendaw). It was named after a Native settlement outside of Charleston.

Although Spoonbread dated back many centuries, it became very popular with American around the turn of the 20th century. And the town of Berea, Kentucky has been home to an annual Spoonbread Festival, which has been held in September since 1997.

Below is a recipe from the Epicurious.com website for Fresh Corn Spoonbread:

Corn Spoonbread

Ingredients

2 cups whole milk
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 ears)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated

Preparations

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Bring milk, cornmeal, corn kernels, butter, and salt to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, and simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then whisk in yolks.

Beat whites and a pinch of salt with an electric mixer at medium speed just until soft peaks form. Whisk one fourth of whites into cornmeal mixture in pan to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Spread mixture evenly in a buttered 9 1/2-inch deep-dish glass pie plate or 1 1/2-quart shallow casserole and bake in middle of oven until puffed and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately (like a soufflé, spoon bread collapses quickly).

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had“Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie.

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Francis Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bundy portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

The Meaning of Colors

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THE MEANING OF COLORS

Several years ago, I came across an old website about Wiccan practices and meanings. I was surprised to discover that even before the advent of Wicca in the early 20th century, Pagan worshipers associated colors with certain meanings. And those meanings turned out to be quite different than many people would today assume.

Unlike today’s societies – especially in the Western world – white or light did not automatically mean something good, pure or noble. In fact, even the white wedding dress has nothing to do with the lack of sexual experience or innocence of the bride. The white wedding dress started out as a fashion trend . . . and remains one to this day. This fashion trend was created by Britain’s Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. The young queen wanted to show that she was just a “simple” woman getting married, so she wore a white dress. She also wanted to incorporate some lace into her dress. Queen Mary of Scots wore a white wedding gown when she married Francis, Dauphin of France. Why? Because white was her favorite color. Before Victoria, women usually wore their best outfit for their wedding.

But there are the exceptions in which white is used as a negative form of symbolism in Western culture. One of the major villains in C.S. Lewis’ “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA” literary series is Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia. There is nothing dark about this character’s physical appearance and wardrobe. She is all white. Albinism is also associated with the color white and negative traits in various forms of popular culture – including movies like “COLD MOUNTAIN”, “THE DA VINCI CODE”, “THE MATRIX RELOADED”; and in novels like “The Invisible Man” and “Blood Meridian”. However, these are rare forms of white used as negative symbols and stereotypes.

So, what was the color white associated with . . . at least in Pagan circles? Simple. The color was associated with psychic pursuits, psychology, dreams, astral projection, imagination and reincarnation. Apparently moral goodness or purity has nothing to do with the color white. At least in old Pagan terms. Which leads me to this question . . . why do today’s Western societies insist that white has anything to do with moral compass of any form.

Finally, we come to the color black. As many people should know, modern Western societies tend to associate black or anything dark as something evil or negative. There are probably other societies that do the same. Fictional characters associated with evil in many science-fiction/fantasy stories are usually associated with black. Sorcery that has a negative effect upon someone is either called “black magic” or “the Dark Arts” (at least with the “HARRY POTTER” and Buffyverse franchises. And in the “POTTER” series, wizards and witches who have given in to evil are labeled as “dark”. The “STAR WARS” franchise usually refer to evil as “the Dark Side of the Force”.

In the “ONCE UPON A TIME” television series, the Rumpelstiltskin character was also called “the Dark One”. Why? As it turned out, some entity called “the Darkness” had entered his body after he had stabbed the former holder of “the Dark One” title. Apparently, show runners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz could not find a name for the entity and called it “The Darkness” – automatically associating its black coloring with evil. Now it seems that the series’ main character, Emma Swan, has been given the name, due to the entity entering her body. The ironic thing is that Emma’s physical appearance – her skin, her eyes and hair – have become pale or white. Yet, she dresses in black and is called “the Dark One” or “the Dark Swan”. I am still shaking my head over this contrast. As for magic, sorcery, or even psychic abilities in many of these movies and television shows, it is clear that their creators/show runners associate dark or black with evil and light or white with goodness.

Ironically, long time Pagans associated the color black with the following – binding, protection, neutralization, karma, death manifestation and will power. Someone might say – “A ha! Death manifestation! This is a term can be regarded as something negative or evil.” But can it? Why is death constantly regarded as something negative? Because people are incapable of truly facing the idea of death. It is a natural part of our life span and yet, many people cannot accept it. And because of this negative attitude toward death, society associates death with . . . you guess it . . . the color black. Apparently the Pagans believed differently and did not associate black with anything evil or negative. I was surprised to discover that Chinese culture regard black as a symbol of water, one of the five fundamental elements believed to compose all things. The Chinese also associated black with winter, cold, and the direction North, usually symbolized by a black tortoise. Black is also associated with disorder – including the positive disorder which leads to change and new life.

I have one last statement to make. I have noticed a growing trend on Internet message boards and forums for television shows and movies that deal with science-fiction and fantasy. This trend features a tendency by many of these fans to automatically associate white/light with goodness and black/dark with evil. The fans on these message boards no longer use the words “good” and “evil” anymore. Honestly. I am deadly serious. These fans either use the words light (lightness) or white; or . . . dark (darkness) or black. Why? And why do the creators of these television shows and movie franchises resort to the same behavior? I have to wonder. By associating anything black or dark with evil, are they associating anything or anyone with dark or black skin with evil? I suspect that many would say “of course not”. Considering the notorious reputation of science-fiction/fantasy fans (or geeks) of being racist, I have to wonder.

 

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“KING SOLOMON’S MINES” (1950) Review

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“KING SOLOMON’S MINES” (1950) Review

To my knowledge, there have been at least four film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 adventure novel, “King Solomon’s Mines”. One film had been released in 1937, featuring Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released one in 1950, starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone co-starred in one in 1985. And in 2004, Patrick Swayze and Alison Doody starred in a two-part miniseries, based on the novel. But the film I want to focus upon is the 1950 version. Quite frankly, it is my favorite one.

It took Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer nearly four years to get “KING SOLOMON’S MINES” into production. They had originally planned to have Errol Flynn star as the Victorian hunter and guide living in Africa, Allan Quartermain. But Flynn dreaded the idea of spending time away from any form of luxury, while on location in Africa. He ended up taking the leading role in MGM’s other adventure, “KIM”, in which he spent his off-camera hours at a resort in India. British actor, Stewart Granger, took the role of Quartermain . . . and became a major Hollywood star. The other cast members included Deborah Kerr as Elizabeth Curtis, the woman who hires Quartermain to lead a safari in search of her missing husband; Richard Carlson as John Goode, Elizabeth’s likable older brother; Siriaque as the mysterious Umbopa, who is revealed to be King of the Watusi; and Hugo Haas as Van Brun, a former hunter who is wanted by British authorities for murder. Directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, ”KING SOLOMON’S MINES” was filmed on location in the Republic of Congo and Kenya, along with California.

Loosely based upon Haggard’s novel, “KING SOLOMON’S MINES” tells the story of Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger), an experienced hunter and guide in 1897 Kenya, who is reluctantly talked into helping Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother John Goode (Richard Carlson) search for her husband, who had disappeared in the unexplored interior of Africa on a quest to find the legendary mines. They have a copy of the map that Henry Curtis had used in his journey. A tall, mysterious native, Umbopa (Siriaque), eventually joins the safari. And during the grueling journey, Elizabeth and Quatermain begin falling in love.

As I had stated, this version of “KING SOLOMON’S MINES” is my favorite version. It is not a very close adaptation of the novel. For one, there was no literary version of the Elizabeth Curtis character. And her husband, Henry, was definitely one of the characters. It was he who hired Quartermain to lead a search party – for his missing brother. John Goode was a close friend, instead of a brother-in-law. The novel was basically set in Southern Africa, instead of Kenya and other parts of East Africa. I am quite certain there are other differences between Haggard’s novel and this movie adaptation. But if I must be frank, I really do not care. I love “KING SOLOMON’S MINES”. Its screenplay written by Helen Deutsch, the movie possessed a heady combination of an adventure film, a travelogue and intelligent drama. Cinematographer Robert Surtees deservedly won an Academy Award for his color photography in the movie. East Africa never looked more beautiful and wild. Ralph E. Winters and Conrad A. Nervig won the Academy Award for Best Editing. Thanks to them, there were able to allow the audience to enjoy the African photography, while ensuring that it would not get in the way of the acting and the story.

Speaking of the movie’s acting, MGM was fortunate to get their hands on Stewart Granger in the role of Allan Quartermain. Granted, I am a major fan of Errol Flynn, but Granger was right for the role. He did an excellent job of projecting the heroic qualities of Quartermain, yet at the same time, delving into the character’s cynical, yet slightly melancholy personality. Deborah Kerr was a perfect match as the equally caustic Elizabeth Curtis, who sets the journey in motion to find her husband and alleviate her guilt for driving the latter from England. The on-screen match between Granger and Kerr was so strong that it was simply a joy to watch their verbal sparring and sexual chemistry. Richard Carlson as Elizabeth Curtis’ brother, John Goode, provided cool and intelligent stability amidst the sexual heat and hostility generated by Granger and Kerr. And the East African actor Siriaque’s (I have no idea from which country he came from) character added mystery as the native who joins the Curtis safari.

I am trying to think of something negative to say about “KING SOLOMON’S MINES”. Okay, there were moments when it was in danger of becoming nothing more than a travelogue. And Deborah Kerr’s new hairdo after she had “cut” her hair, resembled a style that a mid 20th century woman would wear and not one in the late 19th century would. No wonder many moviegoers had laughed. Other than the those two quibbles, I have nothing to complain about the movie.

The movie has one more blessing . . . its human portrayal of the African characters allowed it to avoid the tackiness of the 1985 Chamberlain-Stone version or the silly tactic that Paul Robeson was forced to use in order to reveal his character’s true identity in the 1937 version. The movie also provided excellent acting by its cast, great cinematography, and excellent action sequences. Is it any wonder that it ended up receiving a Best Picture Academy Award nomination?

“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review

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“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review

With the exception of the 1994 miniseries, “MIDDLEMARCH”, I am not that familiar with any movie or television adaptations of George Eliot’s works. I finally decided to overlook my earlier lack of interest in Eliot’s final novel, “Daniel Deronda” and watch the television version that aired back in 2002.

This adaptation of Eliot’s 1876 novel was set during the same decade of its publication, although the literary version was set a decade earlier – during the 1860s. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Hooper, “DANIEL DERONDA”contained two major plot arcs, united by the story’s title character. In fact, Davies followed Eliot’s narrative structure by starting its tale mid-way. The miniseries began in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany with the meeting of Daniel Deronda, the ward of a wealthy landowner; and the oldest daughter of an impoverished, yet respectable family, Gwendolen Harleth. The two meet inside a casino, where Gwendolen manages to lose a good deal of money at roulette. When she learns that her family has become financially ruined, Gwendolen pawns her necklace and considers another round of gambling to make her fortune. However, Daniel, who became attracted to her, redeemed the necklace for her. The story then flashes back several months to the pair’s back stories.

Following the death of her stepfather, Gwendolen and her family moves to a new neighborhood, where she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man who proposes marriage safter their first meeting. Although originally tempted to be courted by Grandcourt, Gwendolen eventually flees to Germany after learning about Grandcourt’s mistress, Lydia Glasher and their children. Meanwhile, Daniel is in the process of wondering what to do with his life, when he prevents a beautiful Jewish singer named Milah Lapidoth from committing suicide. Kidnapped by her father as a child and forced into an acting troupe, Milah finally fled from him when she discovered his plans to sell her into prostitution. Daniel undertakes to help Milah find her mother and brother in London’s Jewish community before he departs for Germany with his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Although Daniel and Gwendolen are attracted to each other, she eventually marries the emotionally abusive Grandcourt out of desperation, and he continues his search for Milah’s family and becomes further acquainted with London’s Jewish community. Because Grandcourt is Sir Hugo’s heir presumptive, Daniel and Gwendolen’s paths cross on several occasions.

There are times when I find myself wondering if there is any true description of Eliot’s tale. On one hand, it seemed to be an exploration of Jewish culture through the eyes of the Daniel Deronda character. On the other hand, it seemed like an exploration of an abusive marriage between a previously spoiled young woman who finds herself out of her depth and a cold and manipulative man. Most critics and viewers seemed more interested in the plotline regarding Gwendolen’s marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt. At the same time, these same critics and viewers have criticized Eliot’s exploration of Jewish culture through Daniel’s eyes, judging it as dull and a millstone around the production’s neck. When I first saw“DANIEL DERONDA”, I had felt the same. But after this second viewing, I am not so sure if I would completely agree with them.

Do not get me wrong. I thought Andrew Davies, Tom Hopper and the cast did an excellent job of translating Gwendolen’s story arc to the screen. I was especially transfixed in watching how the arrogant and spoiled found herself drawn into a marriage with a controlling and sadistic man like Henleigh Grandcourt. However by the first half of Episode Three, I found myself growing rather weary of watching Hugh Bonneville stare icily into the camera, while Romola Garai trembled before him. Only Gwendolen’s pathetic attempts to rattle her husband and Grandcourt’s jealousy of Daniel provided any relief from the constant mental sadism between the pair. In contrast, Daniel’s interest in Milah, her Jewish ancestry and especially his confusion over his own identity struck me as surprisingly interesting. I also found the conflict between Daniel’s growing interest in Judaism and his godfather’s determination to mold him into an “English gentleman” also fascinating. When I first saw “DANIEL DERONDA”, I thought it could have benefited from a fourth episode. Or . . . the producers could have stretched the second and third episodes to at least 75 or 90 minutes each. But you know what? Upon my second viewing, I realized I had no problems with the production’s running time. Besides, I do not think I could have endured another episode of the Grandcourts’ marriage.

I have to give George Eliot for creating an interesting novel about self-discovery . . . especially for the two main characters, Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth. And I want to also credit screenwriter Andrew Davies for his first-rate translation of Eliot’s novel to the television screen. I would not say that Davies’ work was perfect, but then neither was Eliot’s novel. I have to praise both the novelist and the screenwriter for effectively conveying Daniel’s confusion over his own identity and his fascination toward a new culture and how both will eventually converge as one by the end of the story. Although Gwendolen plays a part in Daniel’s inner culture clash, she has her own struggles. I do not simply refer to her struggles to endure Grandcourt’s emotional control over her. I also refer to Gwendolen’s moral conflict – one in which she had earlier lost when she had agreed to marry Grandcourt. But a trip to Italy will eventually give her a second chance to resolve her conflict. On the other hand, I do have some quibbles about Davies’ screenplay. Daniel was not the only character who had developed feelings for Milah. So did his close friend, Hans Meyrick. Unfortunately, Davies’ screenplay did little to explore Hans’ feelings for Milah and toward her relationship with Daniel. Speaking of Milah, I could not help but feel fascinated by her backstory regarding her relationship with her father. In many ways, it struck me as a lot more traumatic than Gwendolen’s marriage to Grandcourt. A part of me wishes that Eliot had explored this part of Milah’s life in her novel. Speaking of Milah, Episode Two ended on an interesting note in which she finally became aware of the emotional connection between Daniel and Gwendolen. And yet, the story never followed through on this emotional and character development. Which I feel is a damn shame.

Some fans and critics have expressed regret that Daniel ends up marrying Milah, instead of Gwendolen. After all, Eliot allowed two other characters to form a mixed marriage – the Jewish musician Herr Klesmer and one of Gwendolen’s friends, Catherine Arrowpoint. Surely, she could have allowed Daniel and Gwendolen to marry. I do believe that they had a point. I feel that Daniel and Gwendolen would have made emotionally satisfying partners for each other. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about Daniel and Milah. I believe the two women represented choices in lifestyles for Daniel. Gwendolen represented the lifestyle that both Sir Hugo and Daniel’s mother wanted him to pursue – namely that of an upper-class English gentleman. Milah represented a lifestyle closer to his true self. In the end, Eliot wanted Daniel to choose his “true self”.

I cannot deny that the production values for “DANIEL DERONDA” struck me as outstanding. Don Taylor’s production designs for the miniseries did a beautiful job in re-creating Victorian England and Europe during the 1870s. The crew who helped him bring this era to life also did exceptional jobs, especially art director Grant Montgomery and set decorator Nicola Barnes. However, there were technical aspects that truly stood out. Simon Starling’s colorful and sharp photography of Great Britain and Malta (which served as Italy) truly took my breath away. I could also say the same for Caroline Noble, who did an excellent job of re-creating the hairstyles of the early and mid-1870s. As for Mike O’Neill’s costume designs for the production . . . in some cases, pictures can speak louder than words:

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Truly outstanding and beautiful. I was especially impressed by Romola Garai’s wardrobe.

“DANIEL DERONDA” also featured a good deal of outstanding performances. If I must be honest, I cannot find a single performance that struck me as below par or even mediocre. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Celia Imrie, Anna Popplewell, Anna Steel, Jamie Bamber and Daniel Marks. “DANIEL DERONDA” also included some interested supporting performances, especially Allan Corduner’s skillful portrayal of the blunt-speaking musician Herr Klesmer; David Bamber as Grandcourt’s slimy sycophant, Lush; Edward Fox as Sir Hugo Mallinger, Daniel’s loving benefactor; Amanda Root’s interesting portrayal of Gwendolen’s rather timid mother; Daniel Evan’s intense performance as Miriam’s long lost brother; and Greta Scacchi’s very complex portrayal of Grandcourt’s former mistress, Lydia Glasher.

Superficially, the character of Miriam Lapidoth seemed like the type that would usually bore me – the “nice girl” with whom the hero usually ended. But actress Jodhi May projected a great deal of depth in her portrayal of Miriam, reflecting the character’s haunted past in a very subtle and skillful manner. Barbara Hershey more or less made a cameo appearance in“DANIEL DERONDA” that lasted a good five to ten minutes. However, being an excellent actress, Hershey gave a superb performance as Daniel’s long lost mother, a former opera singer named Contessa Maria Alcharisi, who gave him up to Sir Hugo in order to pursue a singing career. Perhaps I should have been horrified by her decision to give up motherhood for a career. But Hershey beautifully conveyed the contessa’s frustration over her father’s determination that she adhere to society’s rules by limiting her life to being a wife and mother. And I found myself sympathizing her situation.

Like Miriam Lapidoth, the Daniel Deronda character seemed like the type of character I would find boring. Superficially, he seemed too upright and not particularly complex. However, I was surprised and very pleased by how Hugh Dancy injected a great deal of complexity in his portrayal of Daniel. He did an effective job in portraying Daniel’s conflict between the lifestyle both Sir Hugo and his mother had mapped out for him and the one represented by Miriam, her brother Mordecai, and their friends, the Cohens. Romola Garai was equally superb as the complex Gwendolen Harleth. She did such an excellent job in conveying Gwendolen’s growth from a spoiled and ambitious young woman, to the matured and more compassionate woman who had survived an emotionally traumatic marriage that I cannot help but wonder how she failed to earn an action nomination, let alone award, for her performance. Hugh Bonneville also gave an excellent job as Gwendolen’s emotionally abusive husband, Henleigh Grandcourt. I read somewhere that the role helped Bonneville break out of his usual staple of good-natured buffoons that he had portrayed in movies like 1999’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and“NOTTING HILL”. I can see how. I found his Grandcourt rather chilly and intimidating.

“DANIEL DERONDA” may have a few flaws. But overall, it is a prime example of the British period dramas at its zenith during the fifteen-year period between 1995 and 2010. It is a superb production and adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, Andrew Davies’ writing, the excellent work by its crew and the first-rate cast led by Hugh Dancy and Romola Garai. It is something not to be missed.

Favorite Novels Set in the OLD WEST

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Below is a list of my favorite novels set in the Old West:

 

FAVORITE NOVELS SET IN THE OLD WEST

1 - Flashman and the Redskins

1. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This seventh novel in George MacDonald Fraser’sFlashman Papers details British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences on the emigrant trail during the California Gold Rush and the Great Sioux War of 1876, some 26-27 years later.

2 - Centennial

2. “Centennial” (1974) by James A. Michener – This epic novel spans two centuries into the history of the northeastern plains of Colorado, which includes the fictional town of Centennial.

3 - The Furies

3. “The Furies” (1976) by John Jakes – This fourth novel in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of Amanda Kent’s experiences between 1836 and 1852, during the Battle of the Alamo in Texas, the California Gold Rush and the abolitionist movement in New York City.

4 - Ride the River

4. “Ride the River” (1983) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of 16 year-old Echo Sackett, who leaves her East Tennessee home to claim a family fortune and keep it out of the hands of murderous thieves throughout the Ohio River Valley.

5 - Heaven and Hell

5. “Heaven and Hell” (1987) by John Jakes – This third entry in John Jakes’ North and South Trilogy concludes the experiences of the Hazard and Main families, following the end of the Civil War. The novel mainly focuses on Madeline Main’s struggles during the early years of Reconstruction and Charles Main’s experiences with the U.S. Army in the West.

6 - Lonesome Dove

6. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This award-winning novel chronicles the adventures of several retired Texas Rangers, while driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

7 - The Warriors

7. “The Warriors” (1977) by John Jakes – This sixth entry in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of members of the Kent family during the Western Campaign of the Civil War in 1864, the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Erie War and the rise of unions.

8 - True Grit

8. “True Grit” (1968) by Charles Portis – This highly acclaimed novel tells the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross, who recruits U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her seek retribution for the murder of her father by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney.

9 - Forgiving

9. “Forgiving” (1991) by LaVyrle Spencer – This romantic tale tells the story of a young St. Louis journalist, who arrives in 1876 Deadwood following the death of her father, to mend family ties with a younger sister who had ran away, five years ago. She ends up falling in love with the local sheriff and discovering a shocking secret about her family.

10 - The Daybreakers

10. “The Daybreakers” (1960) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of Tyrel and Orrin Sackett, who head west to flee a family feud in Eastern Tennessee.

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